Ann Wroe’s favourite activity, it seems, is to plunge into the lacunae between myth and reality, history and fable. As she proved by her lively descant on Pontius Pilate (who she dared to suggest might have been born in Britain), she has a flighty capacity to spin webs of words, anchored in myth and anecdote, which supply a bridge between what others have said and what fancy supplies. Both erudite and eclectic, in Orpheus she seems as much at home in Greek myth as she was, several books ago, dealing with life in the Middle Ages in the French city of Rodez, in the Aveyron. Like Dionysus, who shares some of his distracting characteristics (both led people a pretty dance), Orpheus was an alien enchanter. Never quite fully Greek, he was born in bristling Thrace, where his father was said by some to be the king and by others to be a ‘sheep-herder and a lone dweller in the fields’. The lyrical Orpheus was a marginal and, at times, a commanding figure. As keleustes on the voyage of the Argo, he stood by the mast and gave the beat to the rowers, who included the A-list of heroic and semi-divine celebrities (that other hell-raiser Heracles not least of them). When the Argo put in at Lemnos, a flat island populated by fatal women (they had all killed their husbands in an earlier episode), the crew pleasured the dangerous females, but Orpheus refrained. He was literally the guiding spirit in the quest for the Golden Fleece, and his well-timed steersmanship later squeezed the Argo between the clashing rocks of the Symplegades.

more from Frederic Raphael at Literary Review here.